Big Airlines Just Filed a Legal Document to End Ridiculous Emotional Support Animals. It's Absurdly Brilliant

When it comes to emotional support animals on airplanes, truth is stranger than fiction. You’ve seen the headlines–from Southwest, Delta, and United and others:

Now the biggest U.S. airlines have banded together to try to do something about the situation. The result is a 39-page legal document that starts out earnestly, and ultimately makes clear just how crazy it’s all become.

Officially entitled, “Comments of Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association,” the airlines filed it earlier this month with the U.S. Department of Transportation. It reads like a legal brief, but it’s more like a position paper, and it starts out dryly enough.

By the time we get to the end, however, it’s clear that emotional support animals have gotten way out of hand. The absurdity of the descriptions in this lobbying document might just be enough to finally get the government to do something.

“Barking, biting, urinating and defecating…”

Airlines for America includes most big carriers, such as Alaska, American, JetBlue, Southwest, United, and others. Its filing starts by laying out some of the raw numbers:

  • A 56 percent increase in one year, in the number passengers traveling with emotional support animals. One member airline reports an 8x increase since 2012.
  • An almost uncontrollable surge in passengers trying to travel with “wild and/or untrainable species” that they claim as emotional support animals.
  • A “surge in the number of incidents involving animals manifesting aggressive behavior (including barking, biting, nipping, growling, and fighting) and uncontrolled urinating and defecating…)”
  • Finally, “the cheap and easy availability of fraudulent credentials … via unscrupulous vendors,” that let people with untrained and unsuitable animals claim they’re medically necessary support animals.

​But wait, the unsuspecting reader might think, reading this for the first time: Aren’t there laws that cover all of this? That’s where the absurdity really kicks in.

The big, obvious problem

There are a lot of different laws that seem cover emotional support animals, and they sometimes conflict. But Problem #1, according to the big airlines, is that the DOT requires them to let a wide variety of service animals fly, but then never actually defines what a service animal is, or what training or qualifications it needs to have.

Ironically, Other federal agencies do define service animals–for example the Justice Department says “dogs only,” but those definitions don’t apply to airlines. As a result, you can’t bring an emotional support peacock or iguana on a train or a bus or into a retail store, but airlines are on much shakier ground to stop you.

“It strikes most people as absurd that, under DOT’s current rules, airlines must consider allowing, for example, pigs and birds to travel in cabin on a case-by-case basis,” the airlines wrote.

Instead, they want DOT to copy the Justice Department, and also limit the definition of service animals to include only dogs.

Can we at least agree on endangered species?

You can almost feel the frustration behind the authorship of this document. It starts raising some ridiculous scenarios that appear to be authorized technically under current DOT rules, and asks for guidance or at least an assurance that airlines won’t be prosecuted.

For example, the current federal rules seems to allow an individual passenger to travel with as many as three different support animals at once. How is that supposed to work?

“For example, can the passenger control up to three animals simultaneously throughout the journey?” the document asks. “Are the animals trained to behave, including within the confines of an aircraft cabin?”

And, the airlines list some restrictions its members want to start using unilaterally, for example barring passengers from claiming animals like goats, hedgehogs, insects, birds, and any animal on the endangered species list, among others.

Would DOT at least consider exercising its “prosecutorial discretion” not to enforce laws against airlines that “refus[e] to transport animals other than dogs, cats, and miniature horses?” (We don’t yet know.)

Emotional support spiders and armadillos

There are some other requests as well–things that I think will seem almost overly reasonable in comparison to the current situation.

The airlines want to be able to require people traveling with support animals to actually check in with a person, rather than simply showing up with an online boarding pass.

And they want the right to ask passengers more questions about the animals, and require them to provide documentation of “vaccination, training and behavior.”

But eventually we get to the point that it seems as if the airlines are arguing with an invisible person. 

Because there can’t really be anyone at the DOT who thinks that the laws are truly set up to protect a passenger who wants to fly with an emotional support spider, for example, or an armadillo. 

That would be patently absurd, wouldn’t it? I think that’s exactly what the airlines want the public to know.

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Reem Nori